Saturday, April 28, 2012

Art By Numbers

Camille Nathania introduced herself to me after my address at TEDx Brisbane, last year. A photograph she took of me there was part of her latest project, Numerology: a series of portraiture, which Camille writes, "explores the personalities of nine creatives and their birth numbers, aiming to visually communicate their sense of self through the lens".
will be included in a group exhibition titled We Heart Numbers, featuring the 14 female artists/designers/ photographers who form the We Heart Collective. It opens at 6pm on Friday, May 4th, at The Rabbit Hole Ideation Cafe and will continue until Saturday, May 19th. Further details (and a glimpse of some of the out-takes) can be found on Camille's blog. If you are interested in reading a transcript of what I said at TedX, it can be found here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reality Check

My daily routine at the clinic is simple and mundane.
Each morning, I wake up, shower and straighten the coarse white sheets on my bed. I join other patients for breakfast in a large refectory. I attend a ward meeting at nine a.m. My psychiatrist has exempted me from group therapy. I did it for ten weeks, during my last stay in a psychiatric clinic. It didn't help. Here, my treatment is individual: a combination of TMS (see the entry below), daily one-on-one psychiatric appointments and an autonomous focus on a work habits.
My room is set up as an office.
For a number of reasons, I haven't felt like making art. Instead, I've been getting to grips with duller, less demanding stuff. I make calls, respond to emails, and make entries on spreadsheets. I note what I get done each hour, a way of monitoring my recovery and my ability to stick to a routine. Whenever I leave the room, I pack away my computer and power leads and put them in a small, secure locker. I also keep a ziplock bag of paints and watercolour paper in it but I haven't used them yet.
I have TMS in the afternoons, so my evenings are needed for recovery time. I watch TV. I write in my journal. I fall sleep before midnight.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

All In My Head

I am given a motor threshold test before I begin a course of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS). It’s to figure out the position and strength of the magnetic field that will be applied to my brain.
The purpose of TMS is similar to Electro Convulsive Therapy – to stimulate specific areas of the brain but without the seizures associated with ECT and the need for repeated general anaesthesia. It doesn’t have the side effects of ECT either, which include unpredictable memory loss. There's a small chance that TMS can cause a seizure. I’m willing to take it.
I recline in a large, cushioned vinyl armchair. My arms are outstretched so a nurse can monitor the movement in my hands. She stands beside me and tries to soothe my nerves. A doctor presses a large, plastic device that reminds me of a pair of Mickey Mouse ears to the top of my head. It generates the magnetic field to stimulate specific areas of my brain. He tells me he will adjust the strength and position until my fingers twitch.
Nothing happens the first few times. Then my hands and legs 'jump' a few inches in the air. He lowers the strength. My fingers stretch and splay toward the ceiling. I am told that, usually, only the thumb twitches but they've found the right spot. The nurse marks it on my shaven skull with a black felt pen. The doctor then measures six centimetres from that point, to the area of the brain that is related to depression. He reads out measurements to the nurse, who notes them down.

He starts the procedure again on the other side of my head. This time, I feel the twitch inside my brain as well as in my fingers. It doesn’t hurt but it feels like an invisible finger prodding soft, sensitive tissue. I am suddenly afraid and my eyes well with salt water. I’m so tired of crying. The nurse strokes my arm and tells me to inhale deeply and focus on breathing. Again, she marks the spot on my head with a felt pen and the doctor reads out measurements.
I tell them, "I just felt my brain twitch. I don’t want you to do that side, please.” The doctor assures me they'll administer only to the right side.
My course of treatment will begin tomorrow and will be repeated every day after, including weekends, for three weeks. They hand me a small slip of paper with my name and the time of my next appointment on it. I return to my room.
The next day,
I sit in the same cushioned, reclinable chair. I insert disposable sponge plugs in my ears. The nurse asks me to turn my head slightly to the left. The device that generates the magnetic field is positioned against my skull.
The nurse tells me she’s going to begin and asks if I’m ready. I say “OK.” She counts down from three, then flips the switch.
I hear the sound at the same time as I feel it. It's louder than I had expected. I’m not prepared for the way it feels, which is like a tiny hammer tapping inside my skull, against my brain, every few seconds. She asks if it feels ok. I want to scream, "No!", but I’m crying too hard and I can’t get the words out. I fear I'll go mad from an hour of it.
The nurse sits next to me and puts her hand on my arm. I spend the next hour sobbing and telling her everything that I feel sad or unhappy or upset about. I confess it all, talking rapidly, without pause. Later, she says tells me, "It’s part of the process."
What's strange is that they’re not the things I thought were troubling me. They’re much simpler.
I lose all sense of time. As soon as the tapping in my brain stops, so do my tears. Suddenly, I don’t feel upset anymore. I say to the nurse, “Well, that was weird.” She smiles and tells me my response isn't unusual.
I walk back down the wide corridor to my room. My eyes are swollen from crying. But otherwise I feel fine.

Friday, April 20, 2012

'L'enfer, c'est les autres...'

I am left to sleep for most of the morning. I wake with a pounding headache. I want to be left alone but one after another, nurses knock, open the door and enter, talking, in a single jarring action. There is no privacy in places like this.
I need credit for my internet connection. I ask one of the nurses for an exit pass, a small yellow slip of paper, to go buy some. I'm directed to the receptionist. She presses a button I can’t see, located somewhere beneath her desk. The glass security doors slide open.
I walk quickly to the local shopping mall. In its food court I buy one type of food after the other, tasting each then throwing it away. Japanese sukiyaki, Indian curry with garlic naan, Greek salad, chocolate truffles. I want Thai food but there is none. I want to have something I find pleasurable, if only for a moment. I know it’s related to the well of sadness and restlessness inside me. I am continuously distracted: as soon as I remember, I forget again. I lose track of time.
I give up on food. I buy credit for my pre-paid wireless internet access. I’m agitated and I want to leave. The lights are too bright. Everyone talks too loud. The mall's neon-lit stores and crowded passageways feel like some suburban version of hell. Back at the hospital, I try to hide my jittery rage, with little success. I am checked by a GP. She takes blood samples. I try not to speak in case I snap at her or say something inappropriate.
This evening, my psychiatrist visits me. He tells me I look exhausted. I am. I tell him I am trying very hard to be lucid, 'normal'. But it’s not working.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The clinic is new and has no smell: no damp, no perfume, no disinfectant.
My room is like something you might find in a cheap hotel. The ceiling is high and vaulted. Instead of a wheeled, adjustable metal hospital bed, there is a single mattress on a simple, sprung frame. It’s covered in a non-descript, beige-ish, synthetic fabric. There is a set of drawers next to the bed, a dresser and a narrow wardrobe, all made of pale pine veneer. A phone with a private number is on top of the set of drawers – I am allowed to make local calls. Heavy green drapes conceal floor to ceiling windows. The windows open for fresh air but are screened with a fine steel mesh. Next to them, a door opens onto a private shower room with a toilet.
On the first day I was here, I was visited by a nurse who asked me a lot of questions and jotted my answers onto a sheaf of forms: Why was I here? For a course of transcranial magnetic stimulation and intensive therapy. How was I feeling? By turns deeply depressed, suicidal, manically anxious and paranoid. Am I on medication? No. What is my psychiatric history? Have I been agitated or aggressive recently? Do I drink or smoke or do drugs? I sign the last page of the forms, consenting to the rules, which are mostly about controlled substances for those who are in rehab' here.
Later, the nurse asked what I did for a living. I told I her I was an artist. She asked what kind of art I made but before I could answer she said, “You must go to lots of openings, like on Sex And The City!” I wonder what the fuck Carrie would write about if she found herself where I am now.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mad In Public

The doctors here at the psychiatric clinic have told me that I am holding too much in. They tell me that this is the place where I’m not supposed to have a mask.
I don’t think of myself as someone who wears or hides behind a mask. If anything, I tend to be brutally honest about myself and my art. But in recent years, I have built a wall between my internal experiences and others' experiences of me.
I am open about having a mental illness but I am not open about what that entails, particularly the damage it wreaks, to myself and others.
I am, by clinical definition, insane almost all of the time.
Over the past 20 years, I have rarely been 'normal' or what mental health professionals describe as 'well'. When someone asks how I am and I tell them I'm well, I mean I'm coping, which is about as well as I get.
My early strategy for coping with my worst episodes was to withdraw. The rest of the time, I pretended to be sane as best I could. Those who were closest to me (and there are few) always suffered because it was impossible to hide it from them. They were involuntarily strapped to my roller coaster of psychotic delusions, paranoia, obsessions, auditory hallucinations, impulsive emotionally based decisions, distractibility, doubt, self loathing and rage. Nothing much has changed.
Other than the odd crying jag, my meltdowns have not been public. I’ve regularly had psychoses and delusions but on the whole, I’ve managed to keep the worst of my madness private. I've had to: to build a career, to maintain relationships, to make art.
I used to think that if people knew about my instability, they wouldn’t trust any my ideas, let alone respect my decisions. The fact is that I’ve been this way throughout my entire career: throughout every exhibition, every interview, every interaction with collectors, every blog entry, every public appearance, every success and every failure. I have tried very hard not to let my internal experiences fuck up my external ones, with varying degrees of success. But my being mad makes my every success assailable, subject to question.
I am always asked if my drive for success is 'good for me'.
Over the past couple of years, especially since my father died, I’ve withdrawn further from other people and from myself. I have come to loathe what madness has done to me. I try to take responsibility for it and develop skills to deal with it. But I have come to hate it – and with it, my self – and in many ways, I've stopped dealing with it as well as I should.
I don’t go there anymore in my art. In the past year or so, I’ve made some of my best art but I’ve stopped making anything that involves revealing much about myself. I tried to convince myself that this was a good thing: after all, my mental condition shouldn’t have anything to do with others' experience of my art or me. But it has.
The last thing I ever wanted to be a crazy artist. But in the end, that is what I am.
Not making art that is tinged by my madness hasn’t made me any more sane – even if I still suspect it has made me a better artist. If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Locked inside me with no outlet, my madness has grown restive and become less manageable. Denying myself access to the mad parts of me has greatly reduced the resources I have to to draw on when I make art.
So I've decided to let it out – or, perhaps more accurately, to let you in. I don't know how you'll react – I guess there'll be another slew of unwanted advice from strangers – but I know that if I don't, it will suffocate me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ghosts In The Archives

In 1998, a local 'zine, Bigmouth, asked me if I'd like to be interviewed for their second issue. I asked to do the cover instead. I ended up doing both. Enough time has passed that I'm no longer so embarrassed by the brash, naive, insecure woman – still afflicted by art school speak – I was then. And I still like the line, "Watch out, it'll be on a telly near you."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Remains Of The Day

A brief interview with me was published in Brisbane's U On Sunday, a new magazine supplement for the Sunday Mail newspaper, today. It's about collecting.
Others mentioned in the article collect designer high heels, sneakers, ballet memorabillia, snow domes or rocking horses. I collect skeletal remains. The magazine sent a photographer to my studio just before I was admitted to hospital.
The title
is, ironically, Group Therapy. Below is a transcript of my original interview for the piece:
What sort of reaction do you get from people when they find out about your unusual collection?

I think most people expect artists to have weird stuff strewn about their living and working spaces, so they're not really surprised. In any case, their attention is usually distracted first by my very large collection of sex aids, which I also collect (and which are sent to me by fans of my art, as far afield as Japan, the USA and Eastern Europe). These, too, are a source of references for my art – although that's not to say I haven't had a lot of fun trying them out!
How many skeletons do you have?

I suppose I have between 15 and 20 separate, full or partial skeletons or skulls. I only have a few displayed at any one time, usually in my studio, where I use them as references for paintings.
What sort of animals are they?

I have a soft spot for the long, narrow spines and ribs of snakes (I wear a snakes spine, bought in Thailand, as a necklace), but I also have a number of small birds and rodents. One of the birds skulls has been bronzed by a sculptor in the USA.
How did you start to collect such a thing?!

I grew up in rural Queensland, where carcasses and bones are pretty much everywhere in the landscape. Skeletons of humans and reptiles started turning up in my art about five years ago, when I started doing watercolours inspired by voodoo rituals. I think my collection began during that period.
What is the appeal?

I'm drawn to the delicateness and intricacy of the shapes, especially those of the snakes, which seem to tug at some slightly insidious, atavistic fear. I enjoy sketching and painting the details of them, and adapting them to the somewhat surrealistic scenes of my watercolours.
Where do you find them? Do you buy them or find them yourself?

I don't go out of my way to find them but occasionally, I come across a specimen in the wild that, providing it's old, flesh-less and bleached, I'll wrap carefully and take back to my studio. I find myself intrigued by each set of remains I find – what sort of snake or bird was it? how did it die? – and when I use them in my art, I feel like I am giving them another life.
Where do you keep them?

I keep them mostly wrapped, in boxes, in storage facilities in Sydney and Brisbane. I only have a few displayed at any one time, usually in my studio, where I use them as references for paintings. I also have jewelery made from some of them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Darkness Visible

I have been admitted a private psychiatric hospital in Brisbane.
Despite (or, perhaps in part, because of) an intensely productive period in my painting, which has led me into some of the most interesting works I have produced in a decade, I have struggled with an insidious and not entirely explainable madness. Over the past several months, it has eroded my ability to function, even at a basic level. I have lost close friends. I have lost opportunities. I have lost my self.
This is the second time in two years that I have had to retreat to a hospital. The first, I was perhaps less mad but a lot more volatile. I destroyed a year's-worth of paintings and sketches in my Sydney studio before others intervened. I spent ten weeks quite literally locked away. This time, my art was safe but not those closest to me.
I will be here for at least three weeks. I will probably not draw or paint. Instead, I will write and document some of what I am experiencing. I am not looking for sympathy or to share (I am so not that kind of girl). I am trying to keep track of where I am now and how I came to be here. Somehow, putting it all in public ensures I can't ignore it or pretend it isn't real.